Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Civic Engagement

Global civic engagement through technology

ND Batra
As the ravaging fires in California burnt hundreds of homes and killed several people, a small public radio satiation KBPS-FM San Diego, which was knocked off the air, used its ingenuity and decided to serve the public by publishing on its website maps of places where fires raged, evacuations were ordered, roads were closed, and the places to go for shelter and the best way to reach there.

Using Google’s My Map, its online managing editor Leng Caloh created a virtual map of Southern California, which was continuously updated and has been visited by more than 1.25 million people, giving up-to-date information about the developing situation.

KBPS also used the social networking web service Twitter for text updates for cell phones. Twitter is a micro-blogger that allows short text messages to be sent to its site and it is mostly used by people who just want to exchange brief tit-bits, say, what the heck are you doing now? But KBPS used it to update the information on the status of the howling firestorm. Google Maps Website allows users to overlay information about weather, photos and places to go; but the company couldn’t have imagined that its service My Map will be ingeniously used for planning for public safety.

The use of technology for a purpose different from its original intent is called bricolage. It is the practice of tinkering and using the available material to create something new or solve a problem in a unique way. Americans are not the only bricoleurs, though they are most fertile and creative.

The Wall Street Journal carried an interesting story about a Hong Kong newspaper publisher Jimmy Lai who stealthily sent his reporters to Myanmar to report about the brutality of the military regime against the anti-government protesters, including thousands of Buddhist monks.

The use of cell phone cameras by Lai’s newspaper Apple Daily reporters made it possible for the world to see the bloody carnage in the otherwise closed country and prompted First Lady Laura Bush to write an op-ed piece about Myanmar in the Wall Street Journal. President George W Bush took a stand and imposed sanctions, which seem to be working. You see: the generals are talking.

A few weeks later in October, President Bush and the Dalai Lama met in advance of the ceremony to award the monk the Congressional Gold Medal, a unique honour for a homeless man. Although China huffed and puffed loudly like a helpless dragon warning that these events would be bad for US-Chinese relations, the television images of a man of compassion sent a powerful message of American support for Tibet’s autonomy that China has never honoured.

In many ways we see ourselves and know the physical world through our narratives and descriptions. Our nervous system and our personal and historical memories limit our abilities, our sense and sensibility, to describe and capture reality. But communications technology enhances our natural abilities and enables us to see other dimensions of reality.

Millions of words, for instance, have been written about Mahatma Gandhi whose birthday was celebrated on 2 October and yet it’s doubtful if the truth about this complex man has been completely captured. If somehow we could know a way of tuning up and enhancing the nervous system to a higher level, the reality would change. Think of the time when zero was discovered and the subsequent development of decimal system; and how that might have changed the perception of reality by subjecting physical phenomena to measurement.

Measurement is actuality, which can be enhanced by technology. When Galileo’s telescope was embedded into the human nervous system, the view of the universe changed and the earth ceased to be a stationary planet. Or consider some modern political events. Had satellite pictures not revealed the existence of the Soviet’s missiles in Cuba in the 1960s, Americans wouldn’t have perceived the threat to the country.

If the remote-sensing technology could pick up sights and sounds of human sufferings, it would become possible to know how the Chinese have been brutalising the Tibetans and their culture. The Tibetan cultural pogrom will find full description. Description either leads to action or generates guilt. Guilt demands action and atonement. That’s how human consciousness has been evolving, perhaps.

Through communications technology, the human nervous system extends itself and gives a better or a fuller account of reality, and a feeling of liberation from the constraints of earlier description of reality. New reality demands new laws, ethics, and social relations; and it creates new lifestyles, as one can see happening in the burgeoning economy of Kolkata, where the communist party is a dead man walking albeit still ruling. Communications technology — satellites, radio, television, cell phones and the Internet — which made free flow of information possible, has castrated communism.

History teaches a lesson that it is through the control of narratives that the powerful, the ruling classes, exercise their hegemony. I have always wondered how Britain ruled so successfully over India for about two hundred years. The British succeeded to a great extent by supplanting the native stories and narratives with their own literature and legends, so that knowing the legend of King Arthur was deemed more civilised than knowing the legend of King Asoka.

China has begun to transplant its own stories and historical descriptions upon the young Tibetans, and by the time they grow up into adulthood, their reality will clash with the truth held by their parents — unless modern communications technology, including wireless Internet, shortwave radio and miniature antenna dishes, keeps them alive as Tibetans. By denying the Tibetans access to their language and culture and access to communications technology, China is doing unto Tibetans what Americas have done unto Native Americans.

Don’t you agree that there is something remarkable about the Jewish people, in the sense that from the Old Testament through Steven Spielberg, they have been natural born story-tellers? Because of the anecdotal and photographic accounts of the concentration camps and documentaries like Shoah and docudramas like Schindler’s List, it is impossible to deny the truth of the Holocaust, in spite what Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmedinijad and other nay-sayers might say. Most of us feel guilty for not having stopped it.

The Tibetans have no great film-makers, no story-tellers, and no access to communications technology. They might perish in the unheard silences of the Himalayas unless world leaders keep raising their voices, as President Bush and German Chancellor Angela Merkel did recently. It is time for global civic engagement through all available means of diplomacy and technology.

(ND Batra, the author of Digital Freedom, teaches communications and diplomacy at Norwich University and is working on a new book, This is the American Way. He blogs at http://corporatepower.blogspot.com )

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